Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Every Exquisite Thing by Matthew Quick

Nanette O'Hare is the protagonist of Matthew Quick's newest YA novel, Every Exquisite Thing (near the end of the novel, the title is revealed to be a quote from The Picture of Dorian Gray), and the novel begins when her favourite teacher gives her a copy of the out-of-print cult-classic The Bubblegum Reaper by Nigel Booker. After devouring the book, Nanette reaches out to Booker, discovering that he lives only a few blocks away from her. She is quickly folded into Booker's life, and introduced to other Booker acolytes, including teenage poet Alex (his poems are scattered throughout the novel). Booker gets them together for dinner and then immediately disappears into his house, causing Nanette and Alex to have the following exchange:
I said, "Do you think it's weird that Booker tricked us into going on a blind date and yet neither of us seems mad or upset? I'm not upset. Are you? I mean, you could be pretending. But you seem pretty okay with tonight."
He blinked a few times as if he was surprised by my words, and then the sentences that came out of his mouth were both wonderful and sad. "Honestly? This is the best night I've had in years. Maybe in my entire lifetime."
The book at the heart of Every Exquisite Thing is fictional, and the way it influences and impacts Nanette's life is reminiscent of Hazel's reading of An Imperial Affliction in John Green's The Fault in Our Stars. But while I had absolutely no interest in the plot or characters in Green's fictional book, I read Every Exquisite Thing wishing there was a way to read the parallel narrative, and that The Bubblegum Reaper was a real book, rather than one invented to suit the purposes of the novel (although the fictional cover art for The Bubblegum Reaper exists under the dust jacket, and it will be interesting to see how the paperback release incorporates that art into a redesign). What I mean to say is that The Bubblegum Reaper makes a much more compelling fictional book than An Imperial Affliction. There's even a nod to Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind, a book about an author who buys up all of his books to keep anyone from reading them; there's a rumour that Booker does that, too.

The novel explores the way that books can impact teenagers' lives, especially the ones they find in high school. While Alex is impacted utterly by the protagonist of The Bubblegum Reaper, a Holden Caulfield-esque character named Wrigley, Nanette's life is changed in more subtle ways. Wrigley's repetition of wanting to quit (Nanette isn't sure what he wants to quit, exactly) is the permission and insistence she needs to quit her high school soccer team, even if it could lead to a scholarship and college acceptance. 

I think Every Exquisite Thing is my new favourite Matthew Quick book. It offers compelling and flawed characters trying to find their place in the world, even if their choices aren't conventional or expected; even if they are both of those things. 

Monday, July 4, 2016

Dumplin' by Julie Murphy

Willowdean Dickson, the protagonist of Dumplin', met her best friend Ellen because of Dolly Parton, back when they were kids. Will's aunt Lucy - a Dolly Parton devotee - bonded with Ellen's mom, Mrs. Dryver - a Dolly Parton impersonator - and now Dolly Parton is like the connective tissue of their friendship. Even Will's car is reflective of this theme: it's a 1998 cherry-red Pontiac Grand Prix named Jolene. The book begins with a Dolly Parton quote and describes Will to a T: "Find out who you are and do it on purpose." Will lives her life confidently and fearlessly.

Will lives with her mom, a health care aide by day who is devoted to running and organizing the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet Pageant every year, which has been running since the 1930s. Will's aunt Lucy - her mom's sister - used to live with them, too, but now her room is being cleaned out and Will feels lost without her favourite person in the house.

Will works at a local fast food restaurant called Harpy's, and her classmates crowd in most weekend nights just before midnight to order fries and burgers. She works with Bo, the incredibly attractive guy in the back kitchen. She reflects, "I've had this hideous crush on Bo since the first time we met. His unsettled brown hair swirls into a perfect mess at the top of his head. And he looks ridiculous in his red and white uniform. Like a bear in a tutu." This summer, Bo kisses her outside of the restaurant one night, and they spend the next few months secretly driving to an abandoned parking lot to make out. But Will is increasingly uncomfortable with the way that Bo is keeping her a secret. And Will, who describes herself as a fat girl, hates the feeling of his hands on her body, afraid that he can feel her skin spilling over the sides of her clothing. She breaks it off, and eventually quits her job at Harpy's to cross the street to get a job at the local chilli place.

Fast forward to the beginning of the school year, and Will finds out that Bo has left his private school and now attends her public school, and this time, Will's not the only person who is interested in him. When she decides to enter into the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet Pageant, her friendship with Ellen begins to change, and she finds herself more alone than she has ever been before.

Enter three other girls who are inspired to enter the pageant alongside Will - Millie ("Millie is that girl, the one I am ashamed to admit that I've spent my whole life looking at and thinking, Things could be worse"); Amanda; and Hannah. They become a group worth rooting for as acclaimed author Julie Murphy weaves an incredibly funny, real, and fabulous story with a heaping scoop of romance.

Friday, July 1, 2016

More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera

Adam Silvera's debut novel More Happy Than Not is billed as a cross between the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Protagonist Aaron Soto lives in a one-room apartment in the Bronx with his mom and brother Eric. There's little privacy in the living room that Aaron and Eric share for a bedroom, especially when Eric is up all night playing video games. Aaron spends most of his time in the street with his friends, playing games like Manhunt, which involves chasing each other up and down staircases, through buildings, and down alleys. 

The novel starts when Aaron's painter girlfriend Genevieve decides to go away for a three-week art camp during the summer, leaving him alone. Genevieve has been Aaron's life line, getting him through the period after his father committed suicide, and after he got his own happy-face shaped scar on his wrist. 

Even though Aaron has a group of friends on his block, his sort-of-best-friend, Brendan, is busy with other things this summer. Enter Thomas, a kid who lives nearby, who walks into Aaron's life and causes him to question his happiness, and the in-between state he's been living in. Thomas fills an important gap in Aaron's life when his girlfriend is away, and they're inseparable even when she's back. One of the highlights of the novel is the concept of "Trade Dates." Aaron describes them as something Genevieve came up with: she takes him to a place that she knows he'll like, and he takes her to a place that he knows she'll like. Aaron's place is a local comic book store, Comic Book Asylum, which exists behind a door painted to look like a telephone booth. Aaron and Thomas do something like a "Trade Date," too; but because they don't know each other as well, they each show the other a place that matters to them immensely. 

As Aaron and Thomas grow closer, Aaron discovers things about himself that make it very difficult to continue to date Genevieve, and to be only just-friends with Thomas. Aaron decides that there are two sides to this discovery: Side A is that he likes guys instead of girls and Side B is that he likes one guy in particular - Thomas. 

When things fall apart - first with Genevieve, and then with Thomas - Aaron seriously considers getting a new memory treatment offered by the Leteo Institute. It guarantees erasing certain memories that are too difficult. Aaron even knows someone who has had it done. But is it possible to erase Thomas? And what does Aaron lose by excising those memories and pieces of himself?

More Happy Than Not pairs a fascinating idea - the existence of the Leteo Institute, whose services are similar to those offered in Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind - with deft character development. The book continues to built towards Aaron's decision before pausing in the narrative, and exploring where Aaron has been before, and the choices he has made. I read More Happy Than Not almost in one sitting - it's incredibly hard to put down. I highly recommend Adam Silvera's debut novel, and appreciated the preview of his next novel, History is All You Left Me, that is added to the back of the paperback edition. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything focuses on eighteen-year-old Madeline Whittier. She has severe combined immunodeficiency (SCIDS, for short. She describes herself as being on SCID row), meaning she is allergic to the outside world. The house she shares with her mother and her nurse is her entire world, and an illustration that depicts her as an astronaut floating above the earth (81) is one of the most affecting in the novel. Everything, Everything is illustrated by Yoon's husband, David Yoon, who creates hand drawn illustrations of various size throughout the novel. The novel also includes graphs that chart her hourly breaths per minute, IM transcripts, website screenshots, and ticket stubs. 

When new neighbours move in next door to Madeline's house, she begins to want more than her small world provides her with. This is specifically influenced by her neighbour Olly, a teenage boy her age who teaches her that life is more than what she can read about in books. Madeline reads often and reads widely. Because she is homeschooled, her reading list is mostly self-selected. Yet, she still chooses to read the types of books that we would define as canonical, including titles such as William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Albert Camus’s The Stranger, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre. She writes short, one-sentence reviews of these books under the caption “Life is Short: Spoiler Reviews by Madeline,” which reviews Invisible Man as “Spoiler Alert: You don’t exist if no one can see you” (246). Like in Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Jon van de Ruit's Spud, the books she reads (and her interpretations of them) mirror events in her life, and provide her with a literary lens through which to interpret her experiences.

The text itself also engages with a different kind of focus on graphics and images, one less explicit that that provided by David Yoon's illustrations. This occurs specifically when Madeline describes the silence between her and Olly in the following way: “We are awkward together for a few moments unsure what to say. The silence would be much less noticeable over IM. We could chalk it up to any number of distractions. But right now, in real life, it feels like we both have blank thought balloons over our heads” (73).

Everything, Everything follows Madeline's self-discovery, and especially her journey to live her life to its fullest .

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

The Crossover (2014) by Kwame Alexander is a Newbery-Award winning novel told in verse that experiments with typography and visual poetry. 12-year-old Josh Bell is a junior high basketball superstar, and he plays alongside his twin brother Jordan on the school team. Like Sharon Creech's Love that Dog, Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust, or Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming, the novel is communicated in short, poetic sections, some of which rely on internal rhymes and other times on end rhyme. 

When Josh plays basketball, the pages of the novel come to life and animate, immersing readers in the movements of basketball. Rhymes are emphasized by changes in typography: words are capitalized, indented, falling diagonally across the page. The rhythm and motion of the game is physically explored on the page. This animation occurs only when Josh plays basketball, when the language really comes alive: "He dribbles / fakes / then takes / the ROCK to the / glass, fast, and on BLAST" (10). 

The novel focuses on Josh and his twin brother Jordan - JB - as they have to navigate their changing relationship in junior high. The dynamics largely shift when JB starts dating Alexis, who Josh nicknames "Miss Sweet Tea." Josh finds himself alone, and after a moment of frustration on the court, suspended from the basketball team. Complicating this already difficult year of school is the emerging health condition their father is now exhibiting signs of. He's a former basketball superstar who has nurtured his sons' talents. These tensions thread through the novel, the poetic language moving them from background to forefront as it progresses. 

I've had a copy of The Crossover for a few years, and read in advance of picking up Alexander's latest novel Booked. The language practically vibrates off the page, and I intend to pick up the audiobook version of The Crossover next.